Phosphorus is not an evil pollutant – in fact it is a foundational building block for the DNA and RNA of all living things, even viruses, and is absolutely necessary for plants to capture energy of the sun through photosynthesis.
“A reporter asked me a year ago, ‘Is there a substitute for phosphorus?’” said Flaten. “No, there is not, period. If we run out of oil, there are alternatives. If we run out of phosphorus, we’re screwed.”
In his presentation, Flaten cited United States Geological Survey statistics which say that the world has 200 to 700 years’ worth of mineable phosphorus reserves. Other studies suggest supplies will run out much sooner.
Farmers who feed livestock do a good job of recycling the nutrient. But when cities are fed, the nutrient either ends up in rivers or landfills where it cannot be easily recovered.
But even if global reserves hold out for centuries more, squandering finite supplies of what is arguably the most fundamentally important substance for growing food, and therefore supporting human civilization, is “stupid.”
“We don’t want to be like one gigantic Easter Island civilization that becomes extinct, right?” he said.